Critic's Notebook: Trump Plays Nice in Vague, Detail-Free Afghanistan Strategy Speech

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The president told the nation, "We will fight to win," while also advising us to "open our hearts." Huh?

Donald Trump’s multiple personalities were fully in evidence during his speech announcing his new military strategy in Afghanistan on Monday night. Gone was the snarling defender of white supremacists and “fine people” who just happened to be chanting “Jews will not replace us.” That combative, defiant figure was replaced by a New Age prophet who spoke of “love” and who proclaimed that we should “open our hearts.” America has “no tolerance for hate,” he said. We need to be “at peace with each other,” he cooed. It was as if he spent the weekend not huddling with his military advisors but listening to Marianne Williamson tapes.

“The American people are weary of war without victory,” Trump announced, and he’s certainly right about that. It’s safe to say that most Americans are sick and tired of a war that’s gone on for 16 years (Trump said it was 17 years, but math was never his strong suit). After all, notable public utterances about the war in recent years have included “Afghanistan is a total disaster”; “Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”; and “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!” And those are just quotes from Trump.

But now that he’s got a full roster of generals giving him advice, Trump’s changed his tune. And not just any generals, mind you. They have nicknames like “Mad Dog,” and they all look like they’re from central casting. Not to mention that none of them have ever been captured.

At least Trump didn’t try to disguise his change of heart. “My original instinct was to pull out,” he admitted. Now that he’s in the Oval Office, however, other instincts have risen to the fore. “I’m a problem solver!” he proclaimed, although anyone listening would be hard pressed to think of any problems Trump has actually solved. “We will learn from history!” he told the military audience, which is pretty rich coming from a man who’s never read a history book in his life.

Trump apparently has a plan for winning the war in Afghanistan and getting rid of the terrorists he described as “losers!” (I’m sure they’re all slinking away in embarrassment.) But he won’t tell us what it is. It’s been widely reported that it includes sending 4,000 additional troops to the country (although why that will make a difference when there were once as many as 100,000 there is anyone’s guess). But he didn’t say that. Nor did he announce what the time frame or endgame was. He just said, “We will fight to win.” Ah, why didn’t anyone think of that before?

Trump announced that America would no longer be in the business of nation building (somewhere, George W. Bush must have been squirming uncomfortably). He put Pakistan on notice that they would have to shoulder a greater share of the burden. If they didn’t, he threatened, America would ally itself more firmly with India. No reason to think any tensions would result from that.

Much as another Republican politician once talked of “compassionate conservatism,” Trump delivered his own brand of oxymoron. America’s strategy would be guided by “principled realism,” he announced. But for that argument to be convincing, the leader espousing it would have to be guided by principles.

Filled with platitudes and flowery tributes to the heroism of the American military, the speech at least sounded reasonably presidential. But the majority of Americans who have a negative view of Trump are not likely to be convinced simply by his sudden ability to use a Teleprompter. And his base, many of whom supported him when he said we should withdraw from foreign quagmires, will be sorely resentful.

But they’ll probably feel better tomorrow night when Trump completely contradicts himself during his rally in Phoenix.